17.02.2002 Feature Article

Information and Communication Technology (ICT) for development

Information and Communication Technology ICT for development
17.02.2002 LISTEN

...: the case of the digital divide ''Look behind the wealth of nations and you find information; look behind the poverty of nations and you find lack of information'' --Noah Samara Indeed, all the major industrial revolutions that have taken place in human civilizations have been antecedent by technological advancements as evident by the rise of steam power and mechanization in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the spread of electricity and the international combustion engine in the 19th and 20th centuries paving the way for the first and the second industrial revolution respectfully. What is markedly unique about the ICT revolution or the third revolution with hubs in Silicon Valley in the US through Sao Paulo in Brazil to Gauteng in South Africa and Bangalore in India is its propensity in speed and time. With the advances in microelectronics and micro processesors, the last three decades of the 21st century has witnessed a massive transformation ranging from the conduct of government business to the way we run our households. Much has already been said about the extent to which ICT has metamorphosized trade and investment, transport and communication, medical and the information and transportation industries. What must be added is perhaps how a wide range of new products inherent in the ICT revolution including personal computers, laptop computers, hand-held organisers, software, cellular phones, digital cameras and the internet are greatly influencing the day to day lives of businesses, governments, and non-governmental organisations alike. The blue revolution as it is profoundly called is having a tremendous impact on world economies and now national economies are more connected and interdependent than they were in thirty years ago. Today, technological transformations are intertwined with economic globalisation and together they are creating a paradigm called a network age. In the words of Manuel Castells of University of California he said that '' under the impulse of new technologies and flexible forms of organisation and management we are witnessing the formation of a new economy characterised by rising productivity growth and global competition''. What this means is that the network age has succeeded to permeate the very foundation of all societies hardly giving room for one to play the ostrich. To borrow the phrase of John Ralston Saul, ‘technology is presented as a revolution which shapes society and the idea that society might have a say in that shape is generally presented as ludditism’. For example, the potential harms to health from mobile phones or to unborn children from thalidomide are no different for people in New York than in Accra, these and other emerging common problems such as global environment, communicable diseases; cyber crimes; violence; and terrorism, have generated a global common interests and security referred to in contemporary diction as ‘public goods’. It is discernable from the creation of the South East Asian emerging economies and a sudden rise in global output over the last three decades that ICT is the function of economic growth and development. The World Economic Survey 2001 has indicated that for the United States and many other developed economies, investment in ICT sector grew at 30-40 per cent annually in the late 1990s and was the driving force for their strong overall economic performance. It is also said that the utilization of ICT applications reflects stages reached by countries in their economic and social development. According to the report by the United Nations Committee Development Policy (3-7 April 2000) ICT plays a critical role in three main areas namely; clerical services, management services, and public participation system. The first major function of ICT as indicated in the report is the delivery of clerical services to introduce order, timeliness, speed, and uniformity into routine work such as tax collection administration, vehicle registration, personnel administration, auditing, banking, and accounting. The second major function is assisting corporate and government managers in improving their management capability through better control and planning which is very useful in building and revising models for macroeconomic planning for the national, sectoral, and regional economy, as well as model for investment decisions. The third, public information disclosure and participation which is useful for participatory democracy, civic education, fight against ignorance and illiteracy. It has been observed that ICT may contribute to improving the quality of existing services, creating new services, raising labour productivity, increasing capital intensity, enhancing economies of scale, and creating new economic structures. The ICT infrastructure itself namely Internet servers and fiber-optic network have become a major element of economic growth. E-commerce (on-line merchandise) is contributing enormously to the global retail business. The internet and SMS messages have drastically reduced cost and speed in communication. DNA technology has led to advancement in biotechnology. The problematic then is, to what extent are developing countries being incorporated into this revolution? Today, there is a greater tendency for one to superficiary assume that all countries have equal access to the new ICT applications. Of course air transportation costs have reduced everywhere in the world, there is internet connection in major cities in the world, the number of people who use telephone worldwide has quadrupled, satellite and cell phones are everywhere in the world, there has been lots of breakthroughs in biotechnology leading to improved good supply of food and eradication of common diseases. On the contrary, globally all these are happening but these new networks and opportunities are superimposed on a map that reflects a long history of unevenly diffused technology, both among and within countries particularly between the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. The UNDP has acknowledged that much of the economic benefits from ICT and the rapid rise of the internet have so far accrued to the developed world. The ICT industry requires a capital-intensive investments into research and well-funded centres of excellence which have been pioneered mostly by the market-driven private sectors in the North. The private sector is leading global research and development, and has much of the finance, knowledge and personnel for technological innovation. This has closed the ICT market to developing countries who do not have the required investment to compete with the developed world for ICT infrastructure and services. The battle between developing countries and the pharmaceuticals over the patenting of HIV/AIDS drug is a classic illustration. This has created a technological gap between the developed and the developing countries profoundly called the digital divide. Mike Jensen of UNDP has argued that the digital divide transcends the internet into broadcasting media including TV, radio and newspapers which have much higher penetration in Africa than telephone or computers. Indeed, ICT was embraced as an apparatus that would speed up the development process of the latecomers such as Africa. However, the reality is that we are now experiencing the speed at which the developmental gap between developed and developing countries is being exacerbated. In other words, the gap between the digitally connected and the digitally unconnected is getting widened. The Economic Commission for Africa has stated that Africa’s capacity to generate knowledge and to participate in the knowledge society has continued to declined and thus contributed to the exacerbation of the asymmetry between rich and poor and the imbalanced in the structure of global governance, widening the gap between the ‘’the connected world and the isolated Africa’’. The UNDP ICT report for 2001 estimates that the total number of Africa’s internet users is around 4 million with about 1.5 million outside South Africa making the real internet per population ratio 200 people as compared to North America and European average of about one in every three people .
What makes the situation more gloomy is the ratio of human resource development in technological skills between the North and the South because the third revolution requires the need for highly educated human resources to manage the process. Finland for example has 27 per cent of Gross tertiary science enrolment, Sweden 15.3 per cent, Greece 17.2 per cent in contrast to Ghana 0.4 per cent, Tanzania 0.2 per cent and Mozambique 0.2 per cent. UNESCO also estimates that there are 2800 scientists per one million in the developed world compared to 200 per one million in South Asia and Africa. The equation is exacerbated by the continued and debilitating brain drain of developing country scientists to the developed world. What needs to be done?. There is this debate over whether Africa really needs ICT at this stage of its development. The debate gained more currency when no least a person than the Microsoft guru Bill Gate succumbed to the fact that Africa and developing countries for that matter need food, clean water, hospitals, medicine etc. more than ICT. We should however not lose sight of the fact that the two priorities are not mutually exclusive. Besides, It is about time Africa is transformed from a dependent, vampire, beneficiary state to a self-reliant, self-sustained, and self assertive state. This can only be pursued by a vigorous attempt to create wealth in Africa rather than pursuing incremental and crisis-management policies such as what Gate is advocating for. Fortunately for Africa, our hybrid of new leaderships have realised this vision as expressed in the new Africa’s development alternative namely ‘New Partnership for Africa’s development (NEPAD). The NEPAD initiative has outlined a comprehensive schema for harnessing ICT in Africa’s development agenda including inter alia; to double teledensity to two lines per 100 people by 2005, with an adequate level of access for households; - to lower the cost and improve reliability of service; - to achieve e-readiness for all countries in Africa; - to develop and produce a pool of ICT-proficient youth and students from which Africa can draw trainee ICT engineers, programmers and software developers; - to develop local content software, based especially on Africa’s cultural legacy. To conclude, as laudable as this idea may be, it takes commitments, self-will and mobilisation of resources by our leaders to make it a reality. This has already been assured at the last OAU summit. The sign of hope is that, the international community has expressed its readiness to combine resources to make the quest for bridging the ICT gap in Africa happen. The initiative should also collaborate with the recently launced UN ICT task force to avoid duplicating scarce resources.